Commentary by Michael Mackowski
About a year ago, Dennis Tito formed an foundation, Inspiration Mars, whose goal was to send a married couple on a fly-by space mission to Mars and back. This would have to be launched in 2018 to take advantage of the relative alignments of the Earth and Mars. There are obvious challenges to overcome to make this successful, notably funding and the lack of demonstrated life support systems that can last 500 days with no resupply. A few months ago, Tito testified before Congress, noting that he would need the help of NASA to pull off this mission, specifically calling out the need for a heavy launch vehicle like the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.
Now a some members of Congress (specifically Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) is proposing a very similar mission but sponsored by NASA. Note that the idea did not originate with NASA. This would be launched in 2021 and takes advantage of a Venus fly-by for a gravity assist, and results in a mission only a month or so longer than the 2018 plan by Inspiration Mars. It would be the second launch of the SLS and the inaugural flight of the Orion deep-space vehicle. This plan, as well as the Inspiration Mars plan, requires a habitat module which does not exist today, although could be based on American or Russian modules used on the International Space Station. The 2021 launch date provides a bit more realistic schedule to develop some of the missing pieces for such an audacious mission compared to the Inspiration Mars plan.
But does this 2021 plan make any sense? Does it lead to the permanent settlement of space, or is it part of a long term strategy of human exploration of deep space, or will it leave us with any new capabilities that could be used to develop lunar resources or advance the date of putting people on the surface of Mars? My initial thought is no, it does none of these very well, but there may still be a reason to embrace it (which I’ll get to in a bit).
For establishing a solid foothold on the Moon, we will need landers and equipment to process the local regolith to extract resources. Any deep space mission, be it to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars, needs to be part of a long term strategic plan to establish mankind’s permanent presence on other solar system bodies. This mission doesn’t address those needs. For putting a crew on the surface of Mars, we need landers (again) and long-lived life support equipment. Both the new proposal and the Inspiration Mars concept will need a reliable closed life support system, so either of these would be a step in that direction. Ideally, one would like to develop that technology and test it in low Earth orbit or in cislunar space, where a rescue or recovery would be possible should something go wrong. I have not seen a detailed development plan for these missions, so perhaps they are including that. But if that is the case, what value added is the cost of this fly-by mission provide you since you already have developed one of the technologies needed for a Mars landing mission? This is where we get to the “other” reason this mission may make sense.
Is a Venus and Mars human fly-by mission valuable from a gee-whiz perspective that might just incite an increased demand for missions that would actually lead to permanent settlements? We have been looking for something for the public to get excited about. Could this be it? The Inspiration Mars folks admitted this from the start, so is Congress picking up on that approach? Or are they just looking for an entertaining space spectacular (it might be a great television reality series) to justify the existence of their giant SLS rocket?
While a fly-by mission with a crew generates no science results that a robotic probe couldn’t provide at a much lower cost, and doesn’t really put footprints on Mars, and leaves no real infrastructure for future long-term development, the impact of actually going to Mars may generate intangible benefits that are difficult to imagine at this time.
Such a mission would indeed be a real interplanetary expedition. There is something to be said for that. It may not have any great scientific justification, but it could have a big impact on society at a more fundamental level. Is this the “statement” mission that underscores (regains, for some) America’s leadership in space that a lot of people have been calling for?
This doesn’t have to be a terribly expensive mission. The SLS is happening anyway. This may be a relatively cheap way to justify the expensive SLS development. The hab module shouldn’t be all that expensive, relatively speaking. It would be similar to ISS modules. And we’ve been working on CLLSS for a long time. The technology to pull off this mission isn’t that far off, but certainly there is a lot of development required. At this early stage, however, making a believable cost-benefits trade study is difficult.
Are there better ways to spend what little money NASA has at their disposal? Wouldn’t investing in a large lunar lander be a more logical next step? That would require a long term strategy for human planetary exploration, which we still don’t have. But remember, the benefits of this proposal are not primarily driven by logic. If it encourages some political commitment to a long term space program, is that really so bad?